We are now well into the Great Vegetable Revolution. ‘For the majority of the population,’ writes Jane Grigson, ‘vegetables as a delight, to be eaten on their own, belong to this century, even to the period after the Second World War.’ She gives much of the credit for this shift in taste to Elizabeth David, who in the 1950s preached that the fruits of the earth were more than mere adjuncts to flesh. Now the high price of meat is doing Mrs David’s work for her.
The campaign has been waged mostly by women, over the dead bodies (metaphorically and even literally) of their carnivorous mates. A few generations ago, although vegetables were relished by those of taste and sensibility, they tended to be eaten as a ‘corrective or diluent’ of animal food, something to allay putrescence in the guts, as well as to fend off scurvy. In still earlier times, they were prized for their medicinal potential, as in the promotion of lust, the augmentation of sperm and other blessings nowadays achieved by pornography. Modern writers on vegetables (there must be enough of them to form their own guild, like crime writers and motoring correspondents) tirelessly remind us of the aphrodisiac reputation of turnips, carrots and onions: in contrast to lettuce which, as John Evelyn believed, upheld chastity, though possibly not in rabbits.
The vegetable revolution was assisted by the post-war travel boom which enabled housewives to see what was cooking in the vegetable pots of Europe. But, if Mrs Grigson is right, it is the relentless enterprise of foreign growers and promoters which gave us courgettes, peppers, aubergines and avocados, not any rage for novelty in our own growers and greengrocers. The brightest hope for the future, we are assured, is the private gardener: the enlightened private gardener, that is, not the zealot who grows tasteless giant marrows for the glory of God at Harvest Festival.
The books under notice vary from the sage and sensible to the brash and comminatory. Enthusiasm for the cause is understandable, but to describe dishes as ‘exciting’, ‘tantalising’ and ‘absolutely delicious’ can provoke scepticism in adults as well as rebellion in children. Not the happiest example of how to make friends and influence people is the Friends of the Earth Cookbook, a propagandist tract broken up by recipes and rounded off by a complaint over the misuse of sewage sludge. Veronica Sekules is against the rape of the earth, ‘desertification’ by concrete, sea pollution, factory farming, pheasant rearing, hypermarkets, waste of energy, additives, over-eating, the Common Agricultural Policy of Brussels and the CIA (plotting to control the world of the poor by manipulating food supplies); but her chief, and not unreasonable, lament is that vast quantities of grain are used to fatten relatively small herds of beasts. In Britain, she says, ‘our entire agricultural system is devoted to growing food for animals,’ though a page or two later she prudently back-tracks on this. Statistics are conjured up with enormous confidence. Is it conceivable that guilt over meat-guzzling will drive us to consume broad-bean-pod pâté or Shirley’s foul medames (‘In the Soudan, foul medames is eaten every day, at each meal, and no one ever tires of it’) or the African mung-bean concoction called Iddli? The Friends of the Earth diet does not exclude meat altogether: conscience can be appeased, to some extent, by eating lights, otherwise lungs (‘usually fed to pets but eaten a lot in Austria’). Less penitential-sounding are venison casserole and hare in Guinness.
This ‘practical guide to world care and body care’ is hardly helped by the lavishly messy, maverick graffiti which pass for illustrations. They are the work of Donna Muir, a devotee of anarchic lettering, who sprinkles her layouts with words like ‘glug-glug’ and ‘yum-yum’ and provides arrows pointing into pans apparently to show the way in. However, it is an art-form which may well delight all those emancipated readers who save their nail clippings to put on the compost heap.
‘Food from the hedgerows seems a pretty Arcadian idea,’ says Jane Grigson in her Vegetable Book. ‘It has even supported a best-seller or two.’ Though ready to eat nettles with brains, she thinks that ‘much wild food, including escapes from the garden in the past, is not very nice. Who wants to eat fat hen when spinach is easy to buy?’ Not for her the Emerson definition of a weed: ‘a plant whose virtue has not yet been discovered’. This dismissive attitude will not worry Rosamond Richardson, whose Hedgerow Cookery carries on the tradition of books with titles like How to enjoy your weeds and Food for Free. Probably no one now remembers that, in 1940, when a graminivorous patriot called Branson was touring Britain eating mowings from lawns, a book was published called They can’t ration these. It was by the Vicomte de Mauduit, son of a French general, and described ways of enjoying yarrow, broom buds, pine kernels and samphire, along with recipes for gorse wine and beetroot port. Some of his delicacies are listed by Rosamond Richardson, who regards fat hen (alias white goosefoot, alias dirty dick, alias pigweed, alias mutton tops) as ‘the most enlightening discovery of all my forays into the hedgerows’. It is full of protein, distinguished in flavour and one can bring it home by the armful: in short, ‘a sensational vegetable’. Other novelties are Douglas fir tips, goosegrass (‘but perhaps more suited to the diet of the goose’, says the author, naughtily not having tried it), ground elder (the gardener’s despair, introduced like so many weeds by the Romans) and comfrey (don’t eat too much pending the result of research into its alkaloid content). Cow parsley is fine so long as it is not confused with hemlock or fool’s parsley. Chickweed? It is like cress but mouse-ear chickweed is inedible. Wild watercress should be left alone, since it is fairly sure to be contaminated. The young raw leaves of English elm are good for salad, but the decent gourmet will surely pause: ‘the death of so many elms would make eating any part of its growth seem criminal.’ Instead, try noyau of beech leaves, steeped in gin and brandy.
Hedgerow Cookery has a list of poisonous plants followed by a longer list of those which are merely dangerous (including hemp). The safe plants are illustrated, but not the other kind. Does life in Arcady sound hazardous? The author makes it all seem very carefree: ‘The first time I tried sow thistle it was a balmy summer day when the idea of shopping seemed tedious and it was far easier to go out for a walk and collect some leaves.’ There are legal risks, however. Protected plants may not be picked or mutilated and no plants may be uprooted without the landowner’s consent. Hence the inclusion, among the author’s acknowledgments, of ‘My thanks, too, to local farmers, including Peter Unwin, for letting me pick their weeds.’ What about those pine tips? Should the Forestry Commission have been thanked too?
Jane Grigson’s acknowledgments in her Vegetable Book (first published in 1978) include thank-yous to people who ‘tasted dishes’, ‘cooked cardoons’ and ‘tried to convert me to kale’. (Seakale is another story: there is warm praise for ‘our one native vegetable’.) This outspoken, authoritative and agreeably written book is a rich stock-pot of information. We learn how the avocado, a rarity for three centuries, was transformed by the thrusting Israelis into a cliché ‘starter’, all in ten years; how the leek also came back after three centuries; how the mange-tout at long last reaped the reward of honest virtue; how the Japanese came up with the coy miracle of the burpless cucumber; and other romances of our time. The artichoke, that edible thistle, inspires this who’s-afraid-of-Pseuds-Corner flight:
The artichoke above all is the vegetable expression of civilised living, of the long view, of increasing delight by anticipation and crescendo. No wonder it was once regarded as an aphrodisiac. It has no place in the troll’s world of instant gratification. It makes no appeal to the meat-and two-veg mentality.
Asparagus offers gratification without the tingling suspense. But how absurd, says Mrs Grigson, to bring it from Hungary, Cyprus and America when it needs to be eaten the day it is picked. ‘Even asparagus by first-class post has lost its finer flavour,’ she says, giving a privileged glimpse into the epicure’s life (she also gets laver bread by post, presumably first-class). We ought, as she insists, to grow our own asparagus, but meanwhile there’s that restaurant in Dusseldorf with 209 asparagus dishes.
Mrs Grigson eats frozen peas ‘with contempt’, which is rather sad; but the whole recent history of peas is a sad one. The manufacturers seize the pick of the ‘dew-fresh’ crops and the apathetic greengrocers supply overripe hard ‘fresh’ peas which drive exasperated consumers back to the frozen kind. So frozen peas have become something which, like the works of Harold Robbins, are viewed with contempt by everybody except the public. What can be done about it? Probably nothing. The Grigsons must fight on other fronts: against the conspiracy of growers who inflict on us that abiding insolence, the collapsible potato, and ‘the dread Moneymaker’ tomato instead of the luscious Marmande.
Jane Grigson does not warn us about the rather nasty effect asparagus has on the urine, but Marika Hanbury Tenison does; she also explains why astronauts are not given cabbage before take-off. Her ‘new approach’ in Cooking with Vegetables is to reverse the role of vegetables in relation to meat, which of course is what the Friends of the Earth are doing. She tells how, in order to raise money for repairs and at the same time help the tourist trade, she entertained a party of American women to an ‘excellent’ dinner of beef olives with asparagus, using as main ingredients a one-pound fillet steak, 12 thin slices of Parma ham and 12 ounces of asparagus, to serve six. Would six Texan males have found the meal excellent? Or would they have preferred the recipe which calls for six salmon steaks, and two small cucumbers? Not much role reversal there and not a cheap meal either: but there’s a knuckle-end-and-five-veg recipe if you keep looking.
Having knocked about the rude parts of the world, Mrs Tenison has no fear of the British greengrocer. ‘Finger the goods, if necessary, whatever the signs say,’ she instructs. The greengrocer is there to be catechised, like the butcher of Mrs Beeton’s day who was expected to know whether the mutton came from Leicestershire or the seaward slopes of the South Downs. Mrs Tenison has moral courage too, or she would not have confessed: ‘I had always been most violently against the use of tomato ketchup until I recently read that the French are beginning to use quite a lot in their cooking.’ The illustrations in Cooking with Vegetables could not be in greater contrast to those in the Friends of the Earth Cookbook. There are 15 colour plates by John Miller depicting common vegetables newly pulled from the earth, meticulously painted as if for an encyclopedia of rare plants. It would be idle to speculate on the purpose of these illustrations. They are part of the glorification of the vegetable, the greening of Britain.
There is nothing puzzling or provocative about The Home Gardener’s Cookbook, a straightforward assembly of recipes for those admirable people who grow their own food in gardens and allotments, or who pick it from the farm in the new fashion; and the writers offer advice on coping with surpluses. Natural Baby Foods starts with the most natural baby food of all, with suitable words addressed to mothers who say breast-feeding ‘makes me feel like a cow’, or who regard it as ‘mucky’, ‘common’ or ‘old-fashioned’. The cover shows a happy child squatting amid a cornucopia of vegetables, but these are not to be his sole solace when weaned. If Anna Haycraft’s recipes are followed he will also be tucking into tripe, sweetbreads, heart, liver, kidneys and brains. Yum-yum.